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Full-time dentist, part-time mountaineer

ADA member brings Association flag to highest peak in Antarctica

December 21, 2016

By Kelly Soderlund

Peak: Dr. Bruce Terry holds the American Dental Association flag at the summit of Vinson Massif, the highest point in Antarctica.
Wayne, Penn. — As an endodontist, Dr. Bruce Terry spends an ordinary day working in millimeters of space.

On an extraordinary day, however, Dr. Terry prefers to be tens of thousands of feet above sea level. He's had nine experiences at that extraordinary level, six of which were among the notorious Seven Summits, the highest peak on each of the seven continents.

Over the past 12 years, Dr. Terry, 55, has climbed Mounts Aconcagua near the Argentinian/Chile border, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Denali in Alaska, and Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia off his list already. In November/December, he was able to cross off one more: Vinson Massif in Antarctica.

Dr. Terry considers himself a "full-time dentist, part-time mountaineer." In short: "I'm addicted."

"I decided early in 2016 to go to Vinson as my sixth summit by applying to climb with Dave Hahn and three other climbers in Antarctica," said Dr. Terry, president-elect of the Pennsylvania Dental Association, who also practices in Wayne, Pennsylvania. "Dave is a storied climber and guide with 15 Everest summits and 35 on Vinson. In the high altitude climbing world, he is 'the' guide."

One of his necessities for the climb: an ADA flag. Dr. Terry, who served as the editor of the Pennsylvania Dental Journal for eight years, contacted the ADA in early November asking if the Association had a flag he could bring to the summit. The ADA Integrated Marketing and Communications division created one, mailed it to Dr. Terry and it was on its way to Antarctica.

Dr. Terry met Mr. Hahn and the other climbers, whom he did not know, in Punta Arenas, Chile, on Nov. 23, where they spent the next few days getting to know each other, checking their gear and discussing their plan. After waiting for a good weather window, they flew on Nov. 26 to Antarctica on a Russian cargo plane used to take explorers and gear to a camp on the Union Glacier.  From there, they took a twin engine propeller plane and flew 45 minutes to the Vinson Base Camp.

After two days, the group carried about 50 pounds each on their back and pulled 40-50-pound sleds with supplies to the next camp at 9,200 feet. They were working in -5 to -30-degree temperatures with 24-hour sunlight during Antarctica's summer season.

Landscape: Dr. Terry climbed Vinson Massif during Antarctica's summer season, where it's sunny 24 hours a day and the temperatures ranged between -5 and -30 °F.
"We set to work building a proper camp," Dr. Terry said. "We dug a dining tent site and set up our sleeping tents. We also went about building snow walls by cutting and mining snow blocks from nearby and building walls around our tents to protect us from the winds."

Dr. Terry and his team utilized expedition style climbing, which involves carrying some gear to a higher elevation camp and returning to the lower camp to sleep.

"This method allows for acclimatization as well as moving gear up the mountain incrementally," Dr. Terry said. "Some feel that expedition style climbing makes the trip to the summit longer and makes the climber retrace ground already covered, but it's known to make the climber stronger and more acclimatized to high altitude."

The team ascended to a higher camp clipped to a rope, spaced about 60 feet apart. They had prepared for several days and all were experienced climbers but nothing could prepare Dr. Terry for the unfortunate accident that would befall him.

"I can't explain exactly what happened except to say that I removed my pack at a rest on a narrow ledge.  As I put it on the ground it slid away from me and down the ledge. Before I had a chance to secure it to an anchor, it was gone.  In horror, my teammates and I watched it slide down the mountain and disappear," Dr. Terry said. "In that moment, I was physically and emotionally paralyzed. I have always been a strong, capable climber who helped others when problems arose. To have done something so dangerous as to lose all my gear left me in shock."

The pack contained additional clothing, food, water bottles, a stove for the group, a camera, a sleeping bag and pad and Dr. Terry's parka that he wasn't wearing. He was also worried the pack may have hit another climber further down the mountain.

"Without those things I would have been basically a hostage to having to work my way down the mountain and leave because I wouldn't have had the things I needed for survival," Dr. Terry said. "But Dave told me that we were a team and that we would stay together as a team. At the same time, my teammates consoled me and hid their own disappointment well."

Mountaineer: Dr. Terry stands in his climbing gear. He has now climbed six of the famous Seven Summits.
As they descended, the team could see that Dr. Terry's backpack had settled at the bottom of the ropes, 3,000 feet below. They were fortunately able to collect all of the gear that had come loose, minus one pair of socks.

"On the way down the ropes and back to low camp, I was very quiet, not talking to anyone because of what I had done to myself and my team. Thankfully, there was nobody below us that day, otherwise I could have killed someone with a falling pack. We arrived back at low camp after seven exhausting hours and had to rebuild our tents and dining tent," Dr. Terry said. "Each of my teammates came to console me and while I could sense their disappointment, I could also feel their sincere support. We were becoming a team: a single group of climbers in it together. I felt the power of forgiveness under extreme circumstances and marveled at how recent strangers had been transformed by compassion to form a bond that I know will last forever."

The team spent the next 36 hours at the camp in a 60-80 mph windstorm, with gusts up to 100 mph. It was so windy they couldn't light the stoves to melt water for drinking or cooking. They were prisoners inside their tents, which began to fail about 24 hours into the storm. Mr. Hahn had already traveled down to base camp to collect more food but would have to go again to retrieve another tent and even more food for the lengthened expedition.

As the weather cleared, the team made their way to high camp at 12,500 feet and were ready to attempt the summit at 16,050 feet.

"The first few hours were a steady, slow climb. The next few hours were more difficult, with the slope steeper and the temperature getting colder. The last hour proved to be the most difficult, with the slope the steepest since climbing the fixed ropes and the wind strong enough to make our guide warn us about the risk of frostbite," Dr. Terry said.

After hiking for nearly six hours, the team saw the summit ridge in the distance. It was there that Dr. Terry reached the peak and hoisted the American Dental Association flag, celebrating with hugs and tears with his teammates.

Climbing Mount Everest in Nepal would complete the Seven Summits for Dr. Terry, something he would like to achieve in the next few years, despite the protests of his family. His wife, Susan Scanlon, will rock climb with him but prefers a hotel at the end of the day. Dr. Terry's daughter, Caroline, hiked with him in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming when she was 16 but as a 23-year-old first year dental student at Temple University, where Dr. Terry teaches one day a week, he says she has lost interest. Dr. Terry is optimistic about his 15-year-old son Henry, who he says is "probably my best hope for keeping my tradition alive with my family."

In the end, while Dr. Terry's climbs are a physical feat, it's the mental and emotional aspects that drive him.

"As an endodontist, I spend my days looking in the tiniest of little spaces. I go and mountain climb to try to get the big picture of life," Dr. Terry said. "Mountaineering puts me in opportunities to see the bigger picture and have challenges that are different. It does relate to dentistry because, at the end of the day, patients are challenges; teeth are challenges; insurance companies are challenges. Mountaineering teaches me patience, how to look for opportunities and to always be my best."